"I like all varietals. I just don't generally like the way they manipulate Chardonnay in California. Too much oak and secondary malolactic fermentation." Miles, Sideways
Oh, Miles, you are not alone. Let's face it, overdone, over-oaked, exceedingly rich Chardonnays -- and the people who love them -- will always exist. Overly Malo'd Chardonnays seem to be an even bigger evil today than heavy handed oak. But it's time we start debunking the myth that all California Chardonnays are cloyingly rich, buttery oak bombs. There are excellent California Chardonnays out there. Some even possess the magical trinity of oak, butter, and richness but display enough bright acidity to keep them in perfect harmony.
Eric Asimov got the myth-busting off to a good start with his recent article entitled, "The Evolution of Sonoma Coast Chardonnay." Asimov describes the wines that balance richness with lively acidity as having
a kind of "energy". Kistler Sonoma Coast Les Noisetiers was mentioned in his article. While I can honestly say that this is not our personal favorite style of Chardonnay it is, indeed, well balanced and somewhat Mersault-like in its preciseness. The Macrostie Chardonnay Wildcat Mountain Vineyard was also acknowledged and is proof that 'rich' and 'bright' can coexist in a California Chardonnay.
Of the Sonoma Coast producers that were not represented (but received mention) in Asimov's article, we can knowingly weigh in on Rivers-Marie and Lioco. The 2008 Rivers-Marie Chardonnay is one of our favorites. The problem is that we were only able to get our hands on a few bottles and have selfishly stashed them away for personal consumption.
Lioco is notably different because they use no oak on their Chardonnays, only stainless steel tanks. Make no mistake, it is still Chardonnay, but the fruit and acidity are much more pronounced than in most California Chardonnay. Lioco wines do get some fullness from naturally occurring malo. We carry the 'entry level' Sonoma Valley Chardonnay which is very crisp, citrusy, and layered; it's a favorite of customers who are suspicious of California Chardonnay. Lioco’s single vineyard Charles Heintz bottling, which is from the Sonoma Coast, is fuller with flavors of lemon curd and a complexity and freshness that made it our favorite of the the single vineyard Lioco Chards.
2008 Kistler Chardonnay Les Noisetiers Sonoma Coast; $65.99
2007 Macrostie Chardonnay Wildcat Mountain Vineyard Sonoma Coast; $38.99
2009 Lioco Chardonnay Sonoma Valley; $22.99
Beyond the Sonoma Coast, there are plenty of other California Chardonnays that deserve mention.
C. Donatiello is a noteworthy producer of Chardonnay in the Russian River Valley. The wines are bright with stone fruit and pretty, balanced oak. Ramey Wine Cellars, perhaps best known for Cabernet, makes beautiful Chardonnays that are very terroir based. We like the Russian River bottling for its crisp edge.
2007 C. Donatiello Chardonnay Russian River Valley; $28.99
2007 Ramey Chardonnay Russian River Valley; $32.99
Auteur makes breathtakingly elegant Chardonnays with richness, crispness, and lots of character. Winemaker and owner, Kenneth Juhasz, seeks out cool vineyard areas in both California and Oregon and the wines are among our most treasured discoveries of recent years. Speaking of treasures, Hudson Vineyards, a collaboration involving Lee Hudson, owner and operator, John Kongsgaard, consulting winemaker, and Christopher Vandendriessche, winemaker, produces a Chardonnay from Carneros that will make your jaw drop. This is a refined Chardonnay that has more than once – and not just by us – been called the "Batard Montrachet of Carneros." Rombauer Vineyards has gained a following in restaurants and a reputation for buttery, oaky Chardonnay. Although the Chardonnay definitely highlights a buttery richness and palpable oak, the freshness of the fruit begs for another sip -- or a piece of buttery lobster.
2007 Auteur Donum Vineyard Chardonnay Carneros-Los Carneros; $56.99
2007 Hudson Vineyards Chardonnay Carneros; $68.99
2008 Rombauer Vineyards Chardonnay; $32.99
Since 2000, Ojai Vineyards has aged their Chardonnay exclusively in older French oak barrels to avoid heavily oaked flavors. The Ojai Vineyard, in Bien Nacido in the Santa Maria Valley AVA of Santa Barbara, boasts 37 year old vines that give the wines personality and length. The flavors are rich and intense, with levity from the bright minerality. Richard Sanford’s newest label, Alma Rosa, shows restraint in malo and oak usage and looks to French Chardonnays such as Chablis for inspiration.
2008 Ojai Vineyard Chardonnay Bien Nacido Santa Maria; $34.99
2008 Alma Rosa Chardonnay Santa Barbara County; $21.99
Of all the areas that get a bad rap for over manipulating Chardonnay, Napa probably gets kicked around the most. We’ve brought in a few Napa Chardonnays lately that have exceeded our expectations, including The Terraces and Miner Family. Having been big fans of The Terraces Zinfandel for years, we tasted the Chardonnay for kicks and ended up falling for its moderate oak and balanced richness. The richness comes from weekly lees stirring versus malo. Miner Family is another Chardonnay that took us by surprise. Its classic, with bold flavors and toasty oak, but everything works in unison.
2007 Miner Family Chardonnay Napa Valley; $29.99
2008 The Terraces Chardonnay Napa Valley; $27.99
“I don't want to get you drunk, but, ah, that's a very fine Chardonnay you're not drinking.” – American Psycho
Chardonnay is making strides all over California and, the good news is, the styles are so diverse that you should be able to find one well worth drinking.